Memorial helping fishermen enhance lobster landings

By Sonia B. Glover

Lobster fishermen in Eastport, Bonavista Bay, are taking the future of the lobster fishery into their own hands with a research project that they believe will help bring back a prosperous fishery in their area.

In 1993, Eastport fishermen experienced very low catch rates - the worst lobster fishery they could remember. And there was more bad news in 1994 when a Fisheries Resource Conservation Council report stated there were extremely low levels of egg production in the Atlantic lobster fishery. With this in mind, a group of fishermen formed the Eastport Peninsula Lobster Protection Committee, saying they wanted to do their part to try to enhance lobster landings in their area and implement conservation management practices that would protect the resource.

One of these conservation practices is the research project entitled Assessing Protected Areas as a Conservation Tool in a Local Lobster Management Area of Bonavista Bay, Nfld. It is a collaboration between Memorial University, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Parks Canada. The lobster protection committee initiated the project and invited the three parties to join in their efforts to try to increase the lobster population. The invitation was accepted, and today, an exciting project is under way where fishermen are assuming a significant role in controlling their own fishery.

The project involves the closure of two prime lobster habitat areas where research is being conducted. Methods include tagging lobsters in the closed fishing areas as well as the adjacent fished areas, and releasing them back into the water to try to determine their travel patterns over a period of time and the extent of any interchange between lobsters in the closed areas and the fished populations.

Another aspect of the research involves fishermen maintaining records of their daily catches in a logbook. This information will be transferred to computer files by local high school students. The data will then be analysed and compared to previous catches.

Dr. Jack Lawson, Ocean Sciences Centre, said the university's role was to build on the ideas and initiatives of the Eastport Peninsula Lobster Protection Committee, facilitating the participation of a number of parties, both science and non science, and involving Memorial graduate students in the research.

"The first student we had . . . helped us with the tagging of the lobsters," said Dr. Lawson. "So far, we've tagged, measured, and sexed a total of 700 lobsters both inside and outside the closed areas. The new student that we will have in the spring will be conducting the field science of the project, which will be to look at the survival rate of larval lobsters, to look at the movement of the tagged lobsters, to do some analysis of the fishing data from the fishermen, and to implement some of these acoustic tags."

Although the project is still in its early stages, Dr. Lawson said he is optimistic it will be successful.

"It will be a success from the standpoint that it's brought together a variety of people that don't normally work together, and also because it's going to be a long term project. I suspect it will go beyond the graduate level and will last 10 to 12 years. It's a project that will be managed and run by the local stakeholders rather than us as outsiders."

So far, preliminary results have been very encouraging, showing that the closed areas encompass good lobster habitat and the proportion of female lobsters with eggs is greater within the protected areas than in nearby fished areas.

"These results will be confirmed and additional questions answered once the fishermens' logbook analysis and field research begins next spring," said Dr. Lawson.

He added that the research project, which is funded by the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, is a forward step for the province's lobster fishery.

"It's positive in that conservation has been targeted for a number of years by the FRCC as an important means to stabilize and re build the commercial lobster fishery. Given that this conservation took place at fishermen's urging, it is clear to me that these stakeholders are serious about developing conservation methodology and in doing so in a co operative manner with managers from DFO and scientists from outside agencies. In my view this is the way of the future for many fisheries," explained Dr. Lawson.

He said he doesn't think this type of project should end in Eastport. He is hoping it will be extended around the province, perhaps to other fished species that have ties to habitat, such as lumpfish.

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